Dilemmas: Do trial separations ever work?

Brian's been living with his girlfriend for three years, but things haven't been going well, despite lots of talking. Now she wants a trial separation. He worries that once they split, they'll never get back together. Should he hang on, or go?
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Brian's right to be nervous. The word "trial" is always one to be wary of. It's like those free "trial" offers from magazines. You accept them for free for three months and then, blow me, you forget to cancel the standing order and get yourself lumbered with some ghastly consumer magazine for the rest of the year.

A "trial" anything is usually a trial in every nuance of the word. It's a try-out, certainly, but it's also a torture. And in the case of a separation, who, anyway, knows what the rules are? I once had a trial separation with a boyfriend and when I asked him whether he expected us to sleep with other people he just exploded. "Frankly I don't know how you can ask such a question!" he shouted. I still have no idea what he meant.

Brian says that he and his girlfriend have been talking about their relationship for ages, and still nothing's been resolved. So what on earth would be gained by hanging on? And anyway, how humiliating for him. He's been told to get out, politely it's true, but get out all the same.

If he were Mr Cool, he would have packed his bags full of as many possessions as possible, and left that very afternoon, rather than hanging on in there waiting for my reply. He should have shut the front door, leaving no forwarding address, and saying he'd be in touch in three months' time, and he should have left his girlfriend reeling, wondering whether the suggestion she'd made was right or not. And then he should have vanished from the face of the earth, like a spy, making absolutely certain that there was no way she could get in touch with him. A trusted mutual friend could have collected his post every week, or be his post restante.

When my husband-to-be (although he didn't know that at the time) decided that he needed space to sort himself out by going to Canada for six months, I responded by not ringing or writing at all. He was back within two months, having made a date at the register office.

No one likes splitting up. Even Brian's girlfriend would probably prefer it if they could stay together. But clearly the situation's become unbearable for her. And almost certainly she's suggested a trial separation to take the edge off what she really means, which is: "I don't love you or fancy you any more. Get out!"

Trial separations are often a way to dodge the violent rows, the fireworks, the recriminations, of a real separation. This tactic doesn't usually work. All you are doing, by suggesting a trial separation, is putting off the evil day when you do have to tell someone to get out of your life, and you get the anger and upset then.

Unless there are children involved, once you have agreed on a trial separation, that's what it should be. There should be no weekly dinners, or twice- weekly phone calls, or "But we said we'd go to your sister's wedding together, so we'd pretend everything's OK"s. All that would mean is that, from different points of the compass, you'd set out, both self-conscious, both miserably uncomfortable, kind of pretending that you were together but knowing you weren't.

Trial separations, rather like holidays, soon widen the cracks in a relationship. Once one (and it only takes one) unhappy partner has had a taste of freedom that he or she finds liberating and fun, there's sadly never any going back.

Brian had better get the message. Almost certainly, it's over. By leaving as soon as possible, at least he will retain a little bit of dignity.


This is a bid for freedom

Brian is right to feel concerned. Many years ago I suggested to my partner that we should have a "trial separation" because things were starting to go wrong, though no other person was involved. Although I told her - and myself - that we both needed "space" to think and find ourselves, the truth was that I was desperate to get out, and was too much of a coward to be honest about it.

Whatever Brian decides to do, he does need to acknowledge that the "separation" his partner is asking for may well be a euphemism for "freedom".


If you want her, let her go

Brian's relationship with his girlfriend hasn't been good for some time and he's tried with her for three years, so I would suggest he goes along with her wish.

The length of time two people have lived together doesn't come into it; if they are aware that all is not well and, despite talking about it, is still not showing any signs of improvement, that is the time to decide that a break may be the only answer. Breaking up with someone you love is bound to be painful but is far preferable to creaking along to finally fizzle out.

I recently came across a saying from the Chinese: "If you want something badly enough, let it go. If it comes back, it is for you. If it doesn't, it was not meant for you."


Sevenoaks, Kent

Brian's partner is moving on

No one wants a painful separation. But Brian can't hang on, even if he wants to. His urge to cling is a symptom of his dependency and the probable reason why things aren't working. Brian is stuck and his partner is moving on. Hard as it may be, he must let go. In The Dance of Intimacy, Harriet Lerner says: "real closeness occurs ... not when it is pursued or demanded ... but when both individuals work consistently on their own selves." If he uses this to raise his self-esteem, he'll be better equi-pped, in time, to face the future.


London SW4

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My friend Philip is a highly intelligent man of 40, with two brilliant degrees. He's a member of Mensa and has a wonderful personality. The problem is, he suffers from depression. He's had years of psychotherapy, and takes daily medication which has been successful. He's been sectioned under the Mental Health Act four times, but has successfully appealed against ECT which rightly terrifies him. He's been clear of disabling bouts of depression for six years now, and happy with family and small children. The problem is that though he applies for jobs and is often successful at interview, he's turned down by employers when they discover his medical history. This smacks of prejudice to me, but how can I help him? He's just been knocked back yet again, and I can see the beginnings of the onset of another depressive episode.

Yours sincerely, Peter

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail dilemmas@independent.co.uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet.